Pendeen Fogou wasn’t a very prepossessing site. To reach it, the three of us—my husband, Gary, our guide, Cheryl Straffon, and I—had to unfasten three rusty metal gates to venture ever deeper into a farmer’s cattle yard. The broken concrete beneath our feet was covered with several layers of dried (or drying) cow manure. Cattle were lowing and resting in their own muck in the nearby pens.
Our goal was a six-foot-tall stone structure with tall grasses and weeds growing out of the top and a yawning opening in one wall. Before we could enter the site, we had one more obstruction: a detached farm gate, which the three of us hauled over to one side.
Bending low, we followed Cheryl down a steep, stone-lined passage deep into the earth. I was grateful I had my hiking staffs to help keep me from slipping. At the bottom, the rocky passage leveled out. My flashlight illuminated moss-covered granite walls and ceiling, the large stones carefully placed to construct the fogou. Pronounced “foo-goo,” it’s a Cornish word that means “cave,” and it refers to a human-made underground cavern. It usually has a long, slightly curving central passage; another, even smaller passage called a “creep” that was originally the only entrance into the fogou; and often another passage or chamber off to one side. Although now we enter most fogous through the open end of one of the larger passages, originally the “creep” was the only way in and out—and it always descends steeply.
Fogous seem to be unique to Cornwall and were constructed some 2500 years ago, during the Cornish Iron Age, and are always found near Iron Age settlements. Some authorities suggest they were used for food storage, but they are usually too damp for that; some suggest refuge, but with only one entrance they would have been death traps. No bones have been found in them, so they were not burial places. It is probable that they were used for ceremony and ritual.
Cheryl sat on a large flat rock conveniently placed at the “Y” junction between the passage we had come down, another passage to the left, and the tiny creep passage to the right. Gary sat down on another stone, next to the creep, his back to the entry passage.
I followed very slowly down the dirt and rock-covered floor. Partway down, a wave of emotion swept through me. “Where’d that come from?” I thought to myself. “What am I crying about?” I knew this was a signal for me to stop, wait, and ask permission to proceed.
Listening in stillness, to stillness, I “heard” an affirmative response. Legs shaking, I continued into the fogou and sat down on a rock in the passage to the left of Cheryl. I was trembling.
Cheryl looked at me. “You feel it, do you?”
“I want to cry.”
She nodded. “But it’s not from sadness.”
“No—it’s from overwhelming emotion. I don’t know what or why.”
“I know. I’ve felt it too.”
I sat on my rock, trying not to burst into tears, while Cheryl explained the archeology of the site. The rocky passage I was sitting in points northwest, in the direction of the ocean and the setting summer solstice sun. Most fogous point northeast, in the direction of the rising summer solstice sun. Because the original blocking stone had been removed, light was now shining into this passage. It’s possible that originally the passage was closed with a moveable stone, and ceremonies could have taken place that culminated with someone inside the fogou watching the sun set into the ocean on the longest day and shortest night of the year.
The large speckled stone behind Cheryl glittered when she shone her flashlight on it—millennia ago, she would have held a tiny flickering tallow lamp to light the darkness. Then she shone her flashlight over the creep passage on the right. This would have been the original entry but was now blocked off. She explained that the walls were constructed with alternating organic and inorganic materials (stone and filler), perhaps creating some kind of special energy in the place—like Wilhelm Reich’s “orgone generator” box. I wondered if that contributed to what I was experiencing.
The entrance to the creep was very low—about 1-1/2 feet high. A wooden plank had been placed on the rock-strewn floor just inside. You could slide into the creep on your belly under the low lintel. The passage opened up beyond, becoming a bit more spacious.
Imagine sliding down from light into darkness on your belly, squeezing through the tiny, constricted entrance into the main passageways—like entering into a womb—and then later exiting through what had become a birth canal. Perhaps you came to take part in an initiation ritual or a shamanic journey. Perhaps you came to spend an extended period in darkness, fasting, or taking psychotropic drugs to bring on visions. Perhaps you came to honor the longest night and shortest day of the annual cycle of the sun. Perhaps you came….
As we talked about rituals and transformation, childbirth and initiation, I felt a chill breeze blow through the passageway and I started to shiver. “Do you feel a cold wind?” I asked.
Gary nodded. “I feel it on my back.”
Maybe the wind was blowing down from the entrance, I thought. But apparently not. Cheryl said she didn’t feel it. My teeth started to chatter. Maybe this wasn’t the chill of wind but the movement of Spirit. I asked for us to sit in silence for a few minutes while we “listened” to the fogou. A strange, high-pitched buzzing filled my ears, like the faint hum of a swarm of bees. This was soon followed by a distant rhythmic sound that I can only liken to the beat of dewclaw rattles tied around the ankles of Native American dancers.
“Do you hear that high-pitched hum?” I asked.
Cheryl said, “Perhaps you are hearing something called the “hummadruz”—an enigmatic buzzing sound sometimes heard at sacred sites.
While we sat in semi-darkness, Cheryl told us the legend of the spectral Lady in White who sometimes appears at this fogou on Christmas Day. If you see her, you’ll (supposedly) die before the next Christmas. Cheryl suggested perhaps she represents a garbled memory of the priestesses who were associated with this sacred place. Perhaps Christian priests wanted people to stay away from the fogou—particularly at Christmas, which is, after all, a date very close to the winter solstice. How better to break the Old Ways than with the fear of imminent death?
We sat in stillness again. Then Cheryl and Gary made their way back up the passage to the light. I stayed behind in darkness, listening to the faint humming of bees, the distant rhythmic sound of a rattle. I was still shaky; I still wanted to cry; but I no longer felt chilled to the bone.
I know we bring our culturally constructed expectations to our experiences. It’s unavoidable. I wondered whether someone who knew the legend of the Lady in White would associate the humming, the cold wind, the strong emotions I was feeling with her (or it). To me, they seemed to emanate from the stones themselves, from the Spirit of the Place that was so palpably present, several thousand years after the fogou had been abandoned. Of course, that was also a culturally constructed explanation, even if one I made up myself. Whatever it was, I had been gifted with a completely unexpected experience, for which I was filled with gratitude.
I sat in stillness for a while longer. Then it was time to go, although time had no meaning in this ancient fogou.
Author’s Note: For information about Cheryl Straffon and her books on Cornwall, go to www.meynmamvro.co.uk.
Elyn Aviva is a transformational traveler, writer, and fiber artist who lives in Girona, Spain. Her blog is www.powerfulplaces.com/blog. Her most recent book is Where Heaven and Earth Unite – Powerful Places, Sacred Sites, and You,” co-authored with Ferran Blasco. She is co-author with her husband, Gary White, of “Powerful Places Guidebooks.” To learn more about her publications, go to www.powerfulplaces.com and www.pilgrimsprocess.com. To learn about Elyn’s fiber art, go to www.fiberalchemy.com.